Mary Roach’s New Book Grunt Takes on the Science of War

The Oakland-based science writer braids the strands of silly, serious, and stupefying together to her readers’ immense satisfaction. Her new book, Grunt explores the science of humans at war.


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Science darling Mary Roach tackles combat and war in her latest, Grunt.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Science is silly, serious, and, occasionally, stupefying.

People who write about science for the general public often produce deadly dull articles or work that reads like standup comedy. Under the radar, there is a world of stultifying peer-reviewed articles and books authored by academicians, researchers, and other writers whose work the general pubic should be relieved not to ever encounter.

And then there are writers like Mary Roach. In her series of best-selling books, the Oakland-based science writer braids silly, serious, and stupefying stuff together to her readers’ immense satisfaction. Stiff (2003), Spook (2005), Bonk (2008) Packing for Mars (2010), and Gulp (2013), address, in reductive respectiveness, death, the afterlife, sex, outer space, and eating. Her new book, Grunt (May 2016), attacks “The Curious Science of Humans at War,” the book’s subtitle.

Roach combines a lusty enthusiasm for the minutiae of her subject matter with solid substance and a keen, populist ability to recognize science-y outsiders. The quirky men or women she interviews tap into everyday-Joe or Josephine currents that underscore her book’s central precepts: scientists are real people and real people that you can relate to. In a twisted way, that translates as: A is sorta like B who adores C. Therefore, A can adore C also.

 

Gordy Slack, a Bay Area science writer and author who happens to harbor himself in the same downtown Oakland office building as Roach, says her books are full of human personalities and their foibles, making them hilarious and accessible to nonscientists. “She’s got a built-in sense of humor that would make her a great guide to almost any realm,” Slack said. “I’m glad she’s chosen this one, though, because it’s a much funnier place than most people realize. A lot of science writing can be fussy, dry, and abstract. Mary is an antidote to that.”

“Mary keeps things pretty simple,” said Slack, who is working on a book about epilepsy. “But I am having the damnedest time trying to write about the brain in a way that is neither too simple nor incomprehensible. Far as I know, though, that’s always been a big challenge for science writers.

“One downside of all the information available on the web is that a lot of science reporters don’t bother to turn off their computers and go see what scientists actually do,” Slack said. “Mary is a notable exception to that. She does research online, of course, but her writing is really about people saying and doing actual things in actual places. It’s not about ‘virtual’ science. It’s actual.”

You can’t get more “actual” than being shot at, a scene Roach describes in Grunt with her customary dry-with-punch humor. At California’s Camp Pendleton, no less than 40 Marines enthusiastically volunteered to shoot Roach with paintball weaponry. Roach writes that the marine who won the lottery and fired from 70 feet away is heard in the background of a researcher’s video saying, “That was very satisfying.” A footnote adds another layer of laughter: “ ‘It’s almost like he knows you,’ said the researcher.”

In an interview in her Oakland home, Roach strikes a visitor as contemplative, not commando or comedian. Her approach to experts was humble and carefully crafted to lead a conversation to fertile ground. “I come as I am,” she said, her face serious, denying self-deprecating humor. “I want them to know they’re with an idiot. I want them to know I have no background, no refined questions.” Later, she added, “But you also have to be like an Australian shepherd dog and keep them from going far off into the pastures. I need to steer them away from areas that are too specific, but I also need to follow them.” In other words, the military folks she interviewed for Grunt are experts in moisture-wicking camouflage or death by diarrhea, but Roach is the expert navigator when it comes to interviews.

Roach said she never feels judged or treated differently because she’s a woman writing about a sadly still-male-dominated industry. If anything, her outsider, nonscientist status is the only reason she sometimes feels uneasy. Especially in engineering and physics, she’s continuously surprised there are few women involved. “Secretly, girls are missing out on all the fun,” she said.

Gaining access to military departments for her new book was not as difficult as people might think—except for when it was. After submitting a book proposal to the Office of the Secretary of Defense book office, she earned high-level approval. The military was happy to have her shine the spotlight on things that keep people alive—protection from “underbody explosions” (bombs) or internal combustion (diarrhea) just two examples—but it was not willing to give up its secrets. “I would have had a whole chapter on how not to be seen (camouflage), but the technology was classified. I wanted to go out with Special Operations, the macho guys who took out Osama Bin Laden—and with their weather guy; a big no. If it’s classified, the doors are shut; don’t even try.”

Roach got the idea for a book about war after writing a news article about India’s hottest chili pepper. “They’ve identified it as a lethal weapon, a bomb, like mace. At the same time, they were testing a leech repellent. Military science: It was a world that doesn’t get explored a lot. Blame Grunt on the Indian defense industry. After the chili pepper, they turned me down on everything I wanted to report on.”

Her 2 1/2-year book-writing process included three months of “spazzing out, emailing, calling and finding researchers,” followed by “a hunting expedition” that led to applying to be embedded with troops. “There’s special insurance you have to get for kidnapping and ransom, bombs, medivac, explosions,” she said, as if recalling a happy memory. Applying “heavy filtration” while doing “hours of plowing” online using Google Scholar and other resources to search for primary source material is an ongoing activity. “For every moment of finding a magical turd floating by,” she said, recalling work on Gulp, “there’s hours of archaeology.” Her interview notes and recordings, a “wall of books” and files filled with technical papers, are never more important than time spent with researchers and scientists. “They’re always my primary informants,” she said, as if speaking of spies, not scientists.

Asked about the relevance of personal opinion in a science-centric book about a political subject like war, Roach was characteristically direct. “As an outsider, it’s easy to see war as black and white. But spend time in their reality: It’s harder to make snap judgments.” Even so, Roach said she ended Grunt with a chapter on medical examiners for a reason. “You can’t write about the military without writing about the fact that many of the people end up dead. That I end on that note is unsubtle enough: It’s placement more than just hammering on it.”

Indeed, the final chapter closes with Roach mistakenly telling herself that a ladder on wheels must be in a military autopsy room for ceiling repair. Learning it is instead used by autopsy photographers to “get the whole body in the frame,” she compares a soldier to a thousand points of light and searches for perspective. “Only when you step back and view the sun, only then are you able to grasp the worth, the justification for the extinguishing of any single point,” she wrote. “Right at the moment, it’s tough to get that perspective. It’s tough to imagine a stepladder high enough.”

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